Like any Kings fan, I enter each season with inflated optimism. I try to envision ways in which the team may improve and possibly sneak into the playoffs. This year, given the relocation events, I was truly hoping for a bit of a cinderella story carrying the team to an 8 seed where they could possibly play spoiler to the top seed before bowing out in the second round.
That hope was crushed earlier than usual this year. It was not how the team was playing. It was not the losses. It was the early back-to-back against Portland (~5 games into the season). Up and down the line-up, Portland physically (whether by speed, size or both) outmatched Sacramento in so many positions. Coach Malone, Demarcus and Isaiah (the three musketeers) stood no chance. Our main role players early in the season (Grevious, Patterson, Salmons, Hayes, etc.) were clear finished products with some interesting skills (such as Grevious' floater or Chuck's post D), but generally overmatched physically on a nightly basis.
On top of that, so many veteran role players were mired in shooting slumps and the team looked generally deflated. Many fans quickly looked ahead to the lottery, but I am not such a hard believer in the draft as a cure to all sins. I clearly remember both Shabazz Muhammed and Harrison Barnes being touted as clear franchise changing talents as they entered college in recent years. Barnes is a nice young player and Muhammed could be as well, but neither appear to be anywhere near the hype. Even clear wins like Anthony Davis or Kevin Love have yet to turn NO or MIN towards contention.
I know, I know... but this draft is different, more like 2003. Oh, you mean when Darko went no. 2? There were four clear high end players from the top 5 of that draft (James, Wade, Carmelo, Bosh in that order) and, in 10 years, only one team has the reaped the championship benefits. Are Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony truly franchise changing talents? I think that point could, at the least, be debated. What else is forgotten is who went 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 in that draft: Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich, T.J. Ford, Michael Sweetney and Jarvis Hayes.
Getting back on track, what the organization has done with the two most recent trades has increased the franchises' hope level: in the near term and long term. Let me rationalize this point a bit.
Adding Rudy Gay, Derrick Williams and Ben McLemore to the fold in the last few months gives Isaiah and DeMarcus (who have both been truly special so far, from my view) legitimate NBA athletes at every starting position to compete on a nightly basis. There are plenty of question marks with this group and they could be a total disaster. Everyone could hog the ball and the team could melt down. DeMarcus could just explode with emotion one night and everything could crumble before our eyes. But, and this is the big thing to remember, this team could legitimately get good quickly. I'm not sure if a playoff run is even possible, given the current hole that has been dug, but I do think fans could have LEGITIMATE HOPE that should start today, rather our familiar tinge of misguided optimism. The front office is making a high risk - high reward move in a rough season and I love the bravado. We have a possible core (let me stress possible as their are plenty of uncertainties) for the first time in way too long. It is also possible that we lose more for the rest of this season because we have replaced lots of sure thing vets with high risk-high reward prospects (particularly McLemore and Williams) that are not yet positively contributing NBA players.
There is a second component that builds hope (at least from my view). Malone has shown that he controls the team. They are beginning to play defense and move the ball. A clear hierarchy on offense exists with DeMarcus and Isaiah getting the lions share of touches and shots on offense and everyone else filling in. I look no further than the defensive buy-in from players like DeMarcus and Marcus. Marcus has even thrown more sleek passes this year than I thought he was capable of. This has not translated to wins yet and I'm not sure if it has even translated to more passing or defensive related metrics, but I sure see the effort and focus by the players more often than not.
The third component that cannot be overstated is that the players appear to have hope. There is general excitement about playing basketball that I have not seen in this team for years. Opportunity is here for some of the athletes to mesh and build a legitimate NBA team through their play. That point does not appear to be lost on the players.
Still, Malone has yet to demonstrate any ability to build a high end NBA offense or defense from the top coaching position: the team is still just 6 and 13. But, now he gets his chance. Legitimate hope also has emerged for this rookie head coach. He now has athletes that have the ability to defend at a high level at all 5 starting positions. He has three guys who can get their shots (Isaiah, DeMarcus and Rudy) and two that can thrive off of cutting and spotting up (McLemore and Williams). Every player will command space on the floor. Opposing defenses must respect both the outside shots and the quickness to drive. I don't really care about the bench yet at all. For the time being, I don't care about the draft at all. I am intrigued to see how this experiment plays out. With the start to the season that DeMarcus and Isaiah have had in terms of individual statistics, why not see if they can lead a team that has a little more help? Let's see if they can truly run the show. What if Rudy Gay thrives as a clear number 3 (or even a number 2), rather than the clear number 1? If they look promising, then build around them more over the next year to enter next season. If it fails, I know that at least on fan finally has some confidence that the front office and the coach understand what it will take to build a quality NBA product sooner rather than later. Calculated risks and a quick trigger finger. But, for now, legitimate hope about the on court product finally exists. This team has five high end athletes at its starting spots and it has the chance to be very good if the buy in continues and the players develop in their new roles.
Lastly, if the team starts winning, I understand this will hurt draft position in what is being hailed such a quality draft class. Heck, if they win enough, they could lose the pick altogether. I realize some fans will be legitimately upset about this and label this the worst possible outcome for this season. But, just remember, if that were to happen, all of our other prospects will have risen significantly. To play out of a draft slot, I would gauge that all of our players would hit heights unseen before. Sustained offensive performance for Isaiah and DeMarcus as heavy minutes (35+) starters. Efficient production from Gay as a super 2nd/3rd option. Significant development out of Williams and McLemore towards the players they could be. And, bounce backs from the bench vets like Thornton, Thompson, etc. If that happens, all of the sudden our players start looking more attractive and it will easier for the FO to speed up the rebuild further. Whether the office chose to stick with the group or not at that point, there is no doubt that player value would rise across the board. And, our front office can pursue a more risk-averse path towards further building a winner, rather than relying solely on the draft: KWAME, DARKO, THABEET, OLAWAKANDI, PERVIS.